March 20, 2023

I haven’t always been a dog lover. I never had a dog when I was growing up because, for one thing, my parents, like many Polish Jews, were conditioned to be afraid of them. For another, dogs are messy which would have been an affront to my mother’s immaculate housekeeping and for yet another they cost money and, as erstwhile penniless refugees pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, my parents had none to spare for such frivolities. Besides, it didn’t help that my older sister was bitten by a dog shortly after our arrival in the New World. Therefore, I must admit that I too was early on infected by apprehension with respect to our canine friends. However, one of my high school friends had a pooch and from him and his family I learned to understand and love them and was determined to acquire one of my own.

The saying goes that all dogs go to heaven and I have no doubt that this is true.

My first acquisition was the result of pure happenstance. When I was an undergraduate living away from home, I literally had a dog thrust upon me. During my senior year someone left a frail and sickly foundling in the hallway of my apartment building right near my door. I quickly decided that I wanted to rescue him and asked my roommates for permission to go ahead. In the end they did consent and I nursed this baby dog, who I named Moby, back to health and in time his natural little puppy spirits completely revived. However, shortly thereafter one of my roommates had a reversal in her life and alas, for reasons that I will never understand, decided to take it out on Moby and me. There followed a great deal of strife in our household and since puppies, like their human counterparts, are very sensitive, not wanting Moby to be caught in the crossfire, I ended up giving him away to a nice elderly couple who lived in the neighborhood and who had expressed a fondness for him. I too moved out but not without a considerable amount of loathing. Some years later when I was a graduate student in another city I ran into the hostile roommate; she apologized profusely for scapegoating me and Moby but it only made me regret giving him up all the more.

I have sometimes said to myself, as one who married late, that had I acquired a puppy during my early years of bachelorhood that I would have married rather sooner. The theory behind this thinking is that the parent of a well cared for and lovable pet is a magnet to the opposite sex. Anyhow, that didn’t happen, but when I finally did marry it was to another dog lover so there was no opposition when we adopted a pet. Our children were eight and ten years old at the time and made all sorts of commitments to help take care of him but, as is typical, did not fail to disappoint. Still, they gave their new sibling oodles of affection.

We got a rescue puppy that had been born on a First Nations reserve a couple of hours out of town. He was a sweet and furry little thing with big feet when we got him and on the basis of the promise of those feet grew up to be a 95-pound lumbering bear. Unfortunately, the foster family had named the poor darling Che but what did he know about that? Calm and gentle — a baby could poke a stick in his eye and he would barely flinch — I never could understand how someone could name such an adorable beast after a blood-drenched butcher. His only flaw, if you can call it that, was that he drooled a bit, which is not uncommon for dogs of that ilk. Whenever someone approached us and asked if they could pet him — which happened quite often because he was so adorable — I would always warn them about the drooling but no one ever seemed to mind. Good looks help a lot.

More than being a great friend Che was also a life saver of sorts for me. During a bad patch in my life taking Che for a walk, even during the winter — especially during the winter, actually — always revived my spirits. The brisk air and his happy hunkering were a tonic for me and sometimes, when we were out for a winter walk, I would say to myself wouldn’t it be nice if we could just keep going on like this forever and ever. Of course, I would not have been allowed to become one of those homeless people with a pet in tow, but I couldn’t help thinking that I would always be happy walking or cuddling with Che in the cold.

A dog park is more than a green space where dogs are permitted to socialize and play off leash, it is a little community for dogs and dog-people. But with the onset of the pandemic lockdowns, just as might be expected, a safetyist obsession arrived at our little Eden. At first many dog-people disbursed because, in the pandemic of fear, a groundless rumor spread that dogs were super-spreaders. After that, however, a trend occurred in which single people confined to their homes began adopting dogs in great numbers ostensibly on account of loneliness. At the peak of this craze available rescue dogs became as scarce as hens’ teeth. Some of these rescuers became good dog parents but others hadn’t a clue. Most dogs, especially puppies, are hardwired for sometimes rough and competitive play, but some of these dog-parents-by-convenience could not stand conventional dog play and as soon as their dog got involved in it, they would put him on leash and leave, often giving you a dirty look if your dog had initiated the play. The worst of it, though, is that now that the lockdowns have been lifted many of these dogs that were adopted for entirely selfish reasons are now being returned to shelters and since they are older now will be more difficult if not impossible to place.

The saying goes that all dogs go to heaven and I have no doubt that this is true. After Che died, we mourned him for about a year and then acquired another rescue mutt. All children are different and so are all dogs. Che’s successor, who we named Banjo, is a very different kind of animal, smaller, sleeker and also more active. Most importantly, he is a food hound and food hounds are something else. Early on in his life he was wont to snatch and consume what our vet likes to call “dietary indiscretions” and on two different occasions managed to snatch and swallow whole someone’s glove. We had to make him chuck them up and once this meant spending a lot of money at an emergency dog clinic, but that was not the worst of it. With his super sense of smell Banjo can detect a morsel of food at a great distance and is capable of making a precision strike for it at lightning speed. When he is on leash, I can prevent this, but off leash is another matter. On two occasions at a large off-leash dog park he managed to snatch two different people’s breakfast pastries, a bagel and a croissant respectively. We needn’t go into whether it is advisable to be breakfasting at canine level in an off-leash dog park, but it turned out that the bagel person was very gracious and laughed the whole thing off. The croissant person not so much. He angrily declaimed that my dog sucked and stomped off when I offered to pay for the stolen pastry.

I don’t think he really meant that my dog sucked but that I, as his parent, did and I’m inclined to say guilty as charged. I am definitely not a dog whisperer. In fact, I secretly don’t think that they really exist except on television, in which case it is all staged with a thousand takes and clever editing or CGI or some such thing. A dogwalker friend of mine to whom I confided these woeful stories told me that he too had once cared for a dog that was a food hound and therefore had made it a habit of always carrying a little cash around with him when said dog was in his charge in order to reimburse the hapless victim of stolen food.

Don’t get me wrong. I do work at training my dogs and with some success. This is how it goes. For a couple weeks I will work assiduously at some command and be delighted at the considerable progress that we make. However, the next week the pooch will regress and it will be as if all the work was for naught. Pathetic, no? But many of the dog-people I speak with have had the same experience. We shrug our shoulders and console ourselves with the thought that our beloved pets are just going through rebellious phases, much as human children do. Moreover, I contend that this doggy rebelliousness is definitely not a matter of a lack of intelligence. On the contrary, the more intelligent puppies also seem to be the ones that are more rebellious — go figure! But what can I say? Having a dog is like having a child, it’s a life sentence and I, for one, through thick and thin, am happy to be serving the time.